Behold the Amazonian eco-warrior drag queen

By AFP   July 27, 2018 | 12:40 am PT
Behold the Amazonian eco-warrior drag queen
It takes Emerson Munduruku two hours to metamorphose into Uyra Sodoma. Photo by AFP/Ricardo Oliveira
A gay biologist is fighting for the environment and inspiring children to do so in the most indigenous way he could.

Bare chested, wearing an ankle-length dress, painted yellow, green and red, with flowers or leaves in his hair, it takes Brazil's Emerson Munduruku two hours to transform into Uyra Sodoma, his drag queen alter ego.

Whether carrying seeds, branches and other natural materials, Munduruku's creation Uyra, often submerged up to the waist in water, is a colourful extension of the earth and nature.

His mission: to travel around Amazon villages, teaching conservation through performance art.

Of indigenous descent, biologist Munduruku was born in the Amazon region and the environment is a subject about which he feels passionate.

"In a time of change, I had wanted to work in environmental protection," the 27-year-old told AFP.

"I was doing it from a scientific perspective but I realized it was also important from a social perspective. Until then, Uyra had no face or name."

Munduruku, or rather Uyra, takes part in educational projects, teaching children about Amazon communities and how to both connect with and protect nature.

After suffering a homophobic assault in the Amazonian state capital Manaus in 2015, Munduruku decided to give a new meaning to his life, and Uyra was born.

"I'd spent six years of my life studying frogs and lizards... and one day I was hit coming out of a bar because I was wearing lipstick and eyeliner," he said.

"That violence rocked me to my core... I started to get closer to women, transvestites, and understand more about racism and homophobia. I became closer to the city and the people."

Brazilian crisis

Munduruku's personal metamorphosis happened at a time of political turmoil in Brazil, as a corruption scandal involving scores of high profile politicians and major enterprises exploded, eventually leading to the impeachment of then president Dilma Rousseff in 2016.

"Brazil was going through a crisis, artistic expressions of protest were springing up all over Manaus and I asked myself how I could bring new perspectives to my work," he said.

"That was what brought Uyra into the world."

But there was more than an assault behind Munduruku's journey from amphibian and reptile studies to eco-warrior drag queen.

"Our stories can be told through the prism of pain and an immediate metamorphosis. But our stories are much more complex than that," he said.

"Uyra has given me a new lease on life. She makes me happy. She makes me more comfortable in my skin and with other people, as well as with my desires and concerns."

Munduruku says he doesn't believe in different genders: "They're the same, female, male. All I need is that people treat me with respect."

Born in a tiny community of less than 40,000 people in the north of Brazil, he moved to Manaus with his parents and older sister when he was six. Since then they've lived in the suburbs, surrounded by tributaries to the Rio Negro.

The son of a salesman and a maid, Munduruku wanted to study literature at university, but a teacher convinced him to pursue biology studies instead.

'Enchantment or fear'

As Uyra Sodoma, Emerson Munduruku tries to immerse children into a deeper understanding of nature. Photo by AFP/Ricardo Oliveira

As Uyra Sodoma, Emerson Munduruku tries to immerse children into a deeper understanding of nature. Photo by AFP/Ricardo Oliveira

Now he spends his time travelling around small riverside villages to teach about environmental conservation through art. It's through this that Uyra emerges in her full splendor and glory.

"Fundamental to the project is using the jungle as both an inspiration and a tool. This helps to connect people to the forest," he said.

"Uyra is always met with either enchantment or fear... in cities, those who are enchanted approach to speak. But in the villages even those who are afraid approach. There's no distance, it's more spontaneous.

"It's the same with children, they're curious so they approach."

But while Munduruku tries to pass on to the next generation a sensibility towards the importance of protecting the planet, he sees little to feel positive about when it comes to those who hold the fate of the environment in their hands.

With presidential elections due in October, Munduruku sees little political will to tackle the country's growing problems.

"Thousands of people are looking for desperate, immediate solutions or magic to solve systemic problems," he said.

"We live in a age of serious violence in which indigenous lands and environmental reserves are threatened by the invasion of business agreements.

But Munduruku remains upbeat.

"Even though chaos in Brazil seems only to be increasing, I see a lot of green and hope."

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